Being the Next New Deal President Requires More Than Just Good Policy

Newsletter 50: FDR thought “personnel is policy” before it was cool

2020 (and potentially 2021)

Now that the party conventions are over, the process of planning for a potential transition begins in earnest. On Saturday, CNN reported that the Biden campaign has expanded its transition team and established a new advisory board to contribute to the transition effort. Like most of the Biden campaign’s concrete actions thus far, the newly announced membership can best be described as a mixed bag for those hoping to reduce corporate influence in the next administration. Alongside a handful of trusted labor leaders and other progressive figures are some more troubling individuals who remain closely tied to private sector interests. 

Take Jeffrey Zients, one of the team’s newest co-chairs, who was until recently running the Cranemere Group, a Berkshire Hathaway-esque holding company. As David Dayen details in his latest book, Monopolized, such companies’ profits are dependent on consolidation and monopolization (solutions for which a Biden administration would have a great deal of power to implement). We know from his time in the Obama administration that Zients is not particularly effective at separating his private sector mindset from the task of governing in the public interest. He once referred to corporate CEOs as the federal government’s customers! 

The Biden team also elected to bring on a former Associate General Counsel on regulatory policy for Facebook, Jessica Hertz, as a staffer. With each passing day it becomes clearer than ever that Facebook’s dominance and shocking lack of accountability is a threat to safety and democracy; it is frankly surprising that amidst this reckoning the Biden team would elevate someone who until recently was responsible for shielding the company from even a modicum of regulatory action. (Of course, Zients himself was on Facebook’s Board of Directors until less than six months ago.)

And then there’s the fact that the campaign has also elevated Pete Buttigieg into an advisory role. While Buttigieg’s recent private sector work is primarily podcasting, it should not be lost that his recent campaign enjoyed overwhelming support from many of corporate America’s most unsavory figures, Big Tech very much included. When paired with his relatively limited experience (and thus non-existent record of meaningful policy commitments), it is worth asking whether he will serve as a door through which corporate America exerts its influence.

The transition team has tremendous power to shape the next administration and determine its priorities. Its membership is, therefore, hugely consequential. In a July letter, 48 groups told the presidential campaigns that, in this moment in which public trust in government has fallen to new lows, “there should be no room for doubt that your selections [of personnel] serve no interest but the public’s.” They further emphasized that “that must start with [your] choice of stewards for the presidential transition.” The Biden campaign elevated some, like Teresa Romero of the United Farm Workers and Felicia Wong of the Roosevelt Institute, who clear this threshold easily. However, it is not clear if the Biden team is feeling sufficient pressure to put these ideals fully into action.

As if that wasn’t enough, The Washington Post reported on Monday that Biden aides have been reassuring Wall Streeters that any talk of economic populism is just a way to appease “the Warren people.”

Some of those quoted attempted to wave away concerns by framing this as a question of pragmatism; a President Biden will be flexible so as to get the best deals possible through Congress. But this misses a key point: Biden will not, primarily be a legislator. And for many of the policies that were specifically cited, like basic Postal Banking, the primary factors constraining Biden will be his own will to act and who he chooses to carry out his agenda. 

In truth, that these factors are very much in flux should hardly come as a surprise. The pandemic has cast a light on the deeper illnesses afflicting this country and Joe Biden has shifted his vision and tone to match the newly obvious scale of the problems we face. But he has not shed all vestiges of his previous self overnight. While the campaign and transition teams include several populist members (thanks in part to early agitation from the left), former lobbyists, executives, and other establishment figures are well-represented as well. 

As Biden looks to FDR’s example, he should take note of more than just his policies. Joe Biden must also emulate Roosevelt’s approach on personnel if he hopes to get transformative policies implemented. Roosevelt promised that, if elected, he would not appoint anyone from the world of finance to his Cabinet and he followed through. Will Biden take this aspect of FDR’s legacy to heart as well?

Congressional Oversight

Panic over changes at the Postal Service has somewhat subsided (although certainly not disappeared) over the past few weeks, but Congress happily has not let up. The House Oversight Committee issued a subpoena to DeJoy last Wednesday after he failed to meet their deadline to turn over requested documents. Then, after reporting from the Washington Post uncovered that DeJoy had been reimbursing his employees at New Breed Logistics for political contributions to his preferred candidates (a violation of state and federal election law), the Committee announced that it was opening an investigation. Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) has also called for the USPS Board of Governors to fire DeJoy following these revelations. 

This is encouraging but, as always, focusing on just one scandal at a time is not enough under Trump’s reign. Every committee needs to be engaged. As is clear from our over 300-tweet-long thread of oversight targets, there is no shortage of work to go around. To take just one recent example, it is exceedingly clear that the Farmers to Families Food Box program in Puerto Rico is lining someone’s pockets at the public’s expense. So where is the House Agriculture Committee?

Beyond the still-too-limited scope of House oversight efforts, there is the matter of tactics. After almost two years of watching traditional oversight mechanisms struggle to produce results in the face of this administration’s lawlessness, House leadership continues to be startlingly reluctant to use other tools in the toolbox like the power of the purse. Time and time again, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has handed this administration what it wants -- clean spending bills -- without demanding any concessions in return. And she appears set to do it again. 

Lawmakers will need to negotiate a continuing resolution before the end of the month if they want to avert a government shutdown. Nancy Pelosi has already indicated that she will negotiate a bill that is free from riders, thus trading away House Democrats’ leverage for what could be the remainder of the Trump presidency. To be clear, that means that they are not using this moment to fight for election funding for states, support for USPS, or conditions that would constrain Trump’s ability to interfere with free and fair elections. With an appropriation that lasts through the election in hand, Trump will have even less incentive to heed Congress’ requests or, indeed, abide by the law, than usual. 

Relying on an election as the final form of oversight on the president really depends on that election not being tilted in favor of the president by the very type of behavior oversight is necessary to prevent. But assuming that House Democrats’ refusal to use their leverage at this moment doesn’t undermine the possibility of a transition, it will still limit their ability to perform critical oversight that could advance that effort come November. As the Biden campaign ramps up its transition planning, Congress could be pursuing a complementary effort to map the challenges that an incoming Biden administration would face. Oversight that seeks to uncover the resource, personnel, and other infrastructural damage with which a Biden administration will have to contend will greatly improve its chances of success. Assuming that is something that Democratic lawmakers want, it seems unwise to sacrifice the leverage that could help them get answers (especially when doing so carries no obvious policy or political benefits). 

Independent Agencies

Aside from the excitement at USPS, it was a relatively slow month in the world of independent agencies. Trump only nominated one person this month, a Republican to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). Just before recess, two new nominees, one Democrat and one Republican, were confirmed to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), restoring that agency to full membership for the first time since February of this year. Overall, however, the situation remains fairly bleak. As of the end of August, out of the 174 positions that we track, 70 were either vacant or expired, with only 26 nominations to fill those languishing seats. The political imbalance in nominations remains, with 16 nominations for Republicans and only 5 for Democrats. 

Governance

The Trump administration has shown itself willing to trample norms around independence and nonpartisanship and break the law in broad daylight, leading us at the Revolving Door Project to worry about what it has been getting up to out of the public eye. Namely, we are concerned that Trump and his cronies could be working to politicize corners of the civil service through hiring, without attracting much public attention. For that reason, we have issued Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to several different departments and agencies for the resumes of senior career hires. As we noted in our announcement for the project, 

Many of our society’s most basic functions depend on the tireless work of over 2 million career officials who ensure that the federal government fulfills its mandates, no matter the party that occupies the White House. One need only look to the chaos that has resulted from this administration’s attacks on the Postal Service – from prescription drugs delayed, to small businesses’ suffering doubly from the pandemic and slowed delivery services – to understand how essential these people and structures are to our daily lives. Any partisan effort to overtake corners of this workforce represents a troubling threat to good governance, now and into the future. 

Want more?Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week:

Biden Stiff-Arming Big Tech Would Be Good Politics, Policy

Wall Street Critics Target Biden’s Co-Leader of Transition Team

Revolving Door Project Seeks to Uncover Politicization of Career Hiring Under Trump

August 2020 Update on the State of Independent Federal Agencies 

Liberals try to block Obama centrists from Biden climate team

In Bid for TikTok, Microsoft Flexes Its Power in Washington

Running Mate, 9/1/2020

The Rick Smith Show 8/28/20

Environmentalists to Biden: Say no to fossil fuel advisers

Purity test: Democrats clash over Biden diversity goals

This Massachusetts primary is everything wrong with the Democratic Party